The Not So Humble Cabbage

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In another addition to Ecocentric Blog’s terrific on-going column “Real Food Right Now and How to Cook It,” Megan Saynisch highlights the long history, nutritional benefits and cooking versatility of this often overlooked vegetable.

What do you think about when you reflect upon cabbage? (Do you reflect upon cabbage? I do. Especially when I have two giant specimens sitting on my kitchen counter.) Do you pity the poor vegetable, much maligned for its odiferous nature? Do you picture dirty-faced medieval peasants, huddled around a rough-hewn table in a cold hovel, reaching for steaming bowlfuls of cabbage soup? Or maybe your cabbage-y thoughts are happier – of colorful coleslaw at summer picnics, pulled pork sandwiches, hotdogs and sauerkraut? Perhaps you imagine the tingly spice of tangy kimchi, or crispy fish tacos piled high with cilantro and crisp wisps of red cabbage spiked with lime juice? Whatever you think about when you think about cabbage, let’s vow to make 2013 the Year of the Cabbage – super healthy and super delicious, crunchy, hearty cabbage! (And stop thinking about those pitiable medieval peasants – I bet that cabbage soup of yore was tasty!)

A Brief History

Cabbage is, quite literally, the mother of all Brassicas – the enchanting veggie family that includes broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabicollards and Brussels sprouts. The ancestor of all of these culinary delights is a type of wild cabbage native to southern Europe and the Mediterranean. This cabbage forbearer was of the non-heading variety, more akin to leafy kale than to the compact heads of cabbage we know today. Asian cabbage (i.e., Chinese cabbage) is a different Brassica species (B. rapa) with origins in Central Asia.

Cabbage was historically loved as both food and medicine: the ancient Egyptians were fans of the vegetable, first documented in the 19th Egyptian dynasty (1292 to 1187 BCE); the ancient Greeks believed that cabbage first sprang from Zeus’s sweat (this, apparently, was a good thing); and the ancient Romans were gaga over cabbage as a nutraceutical. In fact, Cato the Elder, ancient Roman statesman and author, said this about the vegetable in his treatise On Agriculture: “Of the medicinal value of the cabbage: It is the cabbage which surpasses all other vegetables.” He goes on to describe the vegetable’s usefulness as a cure for boils and sores, all manner of digestive ills and headache. (Read the fascinating translation of Cato here.) The ancient Roman cookbook Apicius also contains a great many cabbage recipes, including many for “cabbage shoots,” which sounds positively delightful.

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This article originally appeared on It is partially posted here with permission from the author.

Megan Saynisch is cook, gardener, culinary anthropologist and writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and young son. A graduate of the French Culinary Institute, she is the creator of the blog (from Ecocentric Blog)

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Thompson